Moments of Reprieve

19/03/2019

Articulating the Comprehensible

What is the ethical centre of a writer's work, the aspect of the material that it would seem to work from and find refuge in or escape out of? In Proust it would seem to reside in his mother; in Kafka his father, in Joyce his wife. But sometimes we may wish to locate it in an event: for Orwell it may have been living on the streets of London and Paris; for Hemingway ambulance driving in WWI, for Beckett his involvement in the resistance. Yet these claims, while hardly false, seem at the same time tenuous. Would we say the same if we were to claim that for Primo Levi it was Auschwitz? There have been other writers who went through the camps and wrote out of them (from Paul Celan to Tadeusz Borowski, Imre Kertesz to Eli Weisel) but maybe no writer would seem to be more associated with the Holocaust than Levi, someone who could say: “the story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal.” This comes in the author's preface to If This is a Man, the writer's first book understanding aspects of the camps, and where he also says, “many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that 'every stranger is an enemy'. For the most part, this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only as random, disconnected acts.” But”, he says, “when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager.”

But Levi was also a chemist, someone who luckily matriculated before harsher Italian laws made it impossible for Jews to take a degree. It was a profession he would practice for many years and would become almost as central to his writing as the Holocaust. Indeed, the profession allowed him to write. As he says in a letter 'To a Young Reader': “In Italy, today, every trade coincides with a guarantee: he who lives on writing has no guarantees. As a consequence, pure storytellers, those who gain their living from their creativity alone, are very few.” (Other People's Trades) Levi was one of those many writers who could not, or wished not do so, aware perhaps that to be one of those writers might have meant compromises he wasn't willing to make. Or, maybe. he didn't feel he had the flexibility to turn his hand to any type of prose even if he always believed a writer's priority was to make himself clear. “It's up to the writer to make himself understood by those who wish to understand him: it is his trade, writing is a public service and the willing reader must not be disappointed.” (Other People's Trades)

There are plenty of writers who might not disagree with Levi but wouldn't be quite so insistent that comprehensibility is the most important aspect of the writer's work. Levi mentions both Celan and Georg Trakl, saying, “it is not by chance that the two least decipherable German poets, Trakl and Celan, both died as suicides, separated by two generations. Their common destiny makes one think about the obscurity of their poetry as a pre-killing, a not-wanting-to-be, a flight from the world of which the intentional death was the crown.” (Other People's Trades) These are strong words from a writer who offers them nevertheless within admiration: these poets “must be respected” he says. But Levi would never have wished to risk this type of obscurity, as though the ethical centre was not only the camps (Celan as we've noted had been there too) but also the chemistry. The need to attend to hard science and hard facts unites Levi's work, but also the need to attend to the moral incomprehensibility of the Holocaust, alongside the general difficulties of chemistry for the layman. The most obvious product of this combination was The Periodic Table, a book that draws together storytelling with chemical formulas, the Holocaust with Levi's family and personal history. At the end of the book, he talks about the properties of carbon, discussing how the absorption of milk works in our body. “It is swallowed; and since every living structure harbours a savage distrust towards every contribution of any material of living origins, the chain is meticulously broken apart and the fragments, one by one, are accepted or rejected.” It then enters the intestinal threshold and supplants the carbon into the nerve cell. Entering the brain it will allow Levi to write the sentences he is putting down on paper, as if making clear that this is a luxury he has not forgotten, well aware that during his time in the camps hunger was an ongoing concern. Writing is difficult in the best of times; in the worst of them almost impossible, but perhaps all the more necessary. This is where clarity is important, and we find the ethics of his prose.

To understand this more clearly let us pay special attention to Moments of Reprieve (while also acknowledging other examples of Levi's writing) What is it: a novella, a collection of short stories, a memoir, or maybe all of these things at once? All the episodes concern the Holocaust and its survival. While If This is a Man was written by a young writer just out of the camps, Moments of Reprieve was written in 1981 six years before Levi's death. If the first book is a survivor's account (also known as Survival in Auschwitz), Moments of Reprieve is a recollection in the relative tranquillity of the intervening 34 years. In this sense, it is perhaps closer to The Periodic Table, written in 1975, than to If This Is A Man. They are both works that carry with them an air of contextualizing wisdom and knowledge. As Levi says in Moments of Reprieve, the passage of time could give to his work a broader context by virtue of the material already written. Levi, speaking of one fellow chemist, Mertens, a German Catholic, someone who had worked in the same Auschwitz factory, but unlike Levi" was inside the barbed wire and he outside”, notes “I learned that Mertens had read my books about the Camp and, in all likelihood, others as well, because he was neither cynical nor insensitive. He tended to block out certain segment of his past, but was intelligent enough to keep from lying to himself.” Interviewed in another book about the Camps, a historical account, Mertens is asked by Hermann Langbein why he went to work in Auschwitz. Mertens replies that he thought it would have been better than a Nazi going; that while he never talked to the prisoners, he did try to improve their working conditions and that he knew nothing of the gas chambers. When Langbein suggests that Mertens obedience was helping Hitler's cause, he doesn't deny it. He just says that today he understands that, but not at the time. Levi says he never tried to meet Mertens. “I felt a complex reluctance”, but Levi did write to him, saying that Hitler's rise to power wasn't despite the likes of Mertens but because of him: they were good people turning blind eyes, trying to do no harm but with their eyes closed to actions that didn't demand acquiescence but resistance. Levi never received a reply and Mertens died a few years later. Levi doesn't say what he died of but the story ends here, perhaps indicating that guilt got the better of him, perhaps not. Levi wouldn't be offering this as revenge, however, showing someone getting their just desserts for an all too sweet life. No, more that the Holocaust took so many people in so many ways: that what matters to Levi isn't revenge in various manifestations, but manifold realization. This would be the awareness of magnitude over the pleasure of the vengeful. To understand vengeance one would first need to understand the logic of the camps, the nature of the human, and the complexity of memory,

Concerning the first, Levi writes about a beautiful young man he met in Auschwitz whom he calls the juggler, someone who could turn almost any activity into a moment of ingenuity and skill. He would do this not to entertain others but to please himself, and Levi liked this man's insouciance that contained within it the need to survive. One day the juggler sees him scribbling away on a piece of paper in an underground storeroom, when the juggler, Eddy, comes in quietly and catches him off guard, clobbering the young writer with a slap. As Levi writes about it in the book he catches himself, saying that by using the word slap he was somehow lying, “or at least transmitting biased emotions and information to the reader.” ('The Juggler') “Eddy was not a brute; he did not mean to punish me or make me suffer. A slap inflicted in the Camp had a very different significance from what it might have here among us in today's here and now” It was, the narrator says, just another way of expressing oneself: Eddy's big fear was that Levi's scribbling could get others into trouble. The point of the slap was to tell someone they had no right to do that. “A slap like Eddy's was akin to a friendly smack you give a dog, or the whack you administer to a donkey to convey or reinforce an order or prohibition.”

So often what Levi wants to do in his work is rescue human nature from the logic of the camps, to say that we cannot apply the usual rules of human nature in circumstances so extreme, but we shouldn't leave behind the relative human decency one would nevertheless find in such an atrociously hostile environment. Trying to send a letter at that time in the camps was against Camp rules; if Levi had been found out he would have gone to the gallows. He insisted he was writing just to puts words on the page and thus Eddy goes to various lengths to determine whether the narrator is telling the truth. He finds that the narrator is, and sees this scribbler as a madman but not dangerous to him. It is Holocaust decency in action. No great deed has been done, the narrator has received an attack, but he escapes a hanging, and Eddy passes for a very decent man.

This can sometimes contain for Levi a moral paradox. In Paris Review he would say, “I was happy when Eichmann was captured and brought before a tribunal and executed – even though I am against the death penalty.” Discussing the foreward he wrote for a book by Rudolf Hess he said that while generally one writes a preface to a book that one loves, he wrote one for a book that he hated. But it was nevertheless an important book and Levi thought it should be brought to the attention of readers. Anyone who sees a contradiction in Levi's position would be unlikely to understand the paradox that insists the human can be appallingly cruel and wonderfully kind, that he/she can be without anger and insist on the harshest of punishments. As Levi says of his own temperament. “It is a matter of hormones. In situations where I should get angry...I was never able to....It's a habit of having my second reactions before the first.” (Paris Review) Levi is dispositionally incapable of the sort of anger numerous others are very dispositionally likely to access. If one human can access it and another can't, then the notion of humanity becomes pretty broad indeed. Any clear claim to understand it would need to understand that range. A paradox is often no more than a nuance initially missed. Thus he can want Eichmann dead without seeking revenge; he can insist on the death penalty whilst against it.

If disposition asks us to call into question the categorically human, memory asks for more subtlety still. In The Periodic Table, the narrator discusses working in an Italian factory and ordering resin for varnishing from a German firm. There was a problem with the resin, Levi writes a letter explaining what the problem happens to be, and in time receives a couple of replies, with the latter containing an important typo. The name of the person sending the letter happens to be a Dr Muller, with Levi noting that there was a Dr Muller who worked in Auschwitz, but then there are a hundred of thousands of Dr Mullers in Germany. It is as common a name as Miller in English or Molinari in Italian. But in a moment worthy of a thriller, the narrator notes too that the word naphthenate is misspelt. And not just once but twice. Who used to misspell the word but the Dr Muller who worked in the camps. Levi gets in contact with the German company's representatives, whom he knows quite well, and asks for further details about Dr Muller, finding out his age, what he looks like and his address. Levi sends him a German copy of If This Is A Man, and asks him in the accompanying letter if he is the Muller of Auschwitz. He also wonders if Muller remembers the three men who would work with him in the laboratory, of which he happened to be one, as well as the “customer worried about the resin that did not dry.”

Levi awaits a reply, and waits, and waits. Eventually, a reply arrives, with Muller admitting he is the Muller of Auschwitz and hopes at some stage for a meeting: “useful both to myself and to you, and necessary for the purpose of overcoming that terrible past.” Now Levi has to reply, but what to say; what exactly are Muller's motives. Levi suspects, understandably, that Muller seeks absolution, but why should Levi put himself through this encounter? Muller “had a past to overcome and I didn't; I wanted from him only a discount on the bill for the defective resin.” What was he to ask, and in what language? Writing at length in German his prose would be full of mistakes, and he had so many questions to ask, from Muller's willingness to work in Auschwitz, to putting children in gas chambers. But reply he does, and in time they speak on the phone and arrange a meeting in Italy. “Eight days later I received from Mrs Muller the announcement of the unexpected death of Doctor Lothar Muller in his sixtieth year of life.” The tale ends there, but in Paris Review, Levi says while he suspected his death was natural he wanted in the story to leave it ambiguous. “I purposely left it undecided...to leave the reader in doubt, as I was.” We might assume guilt got the better of him, that it destroyed him from the inside, ruined his health and took his life. Memory, like the Lord, moves in mysterious ways and moves mysteriously in each individual. If dispositions can be distinct in the present tense, they are no less so when dealing with the past tense too. Was Muller shaken into vague but unequivocal culpability by Levi's contact, or was he an ailing man with a sense of shame looking for Levi's forgiveness?

The way Levi tells the story of Dr Muller in The Periodic Table is quite different from the way he tells it in Paris Review, with Levi making clear that his work is shaped. He gives it the meaning it requires for the impact he seeks. This isn't the same as making things up, which leads to scandal, lawsuits and loss of respect as Adam Kirsch explores in a New Republic essay, 'Yet Another Writer Has Admitted Faking Her Holocaust Memoir'. It is about shaping the facts in a manner that brings out their complexity. This is based more on omission rather than admission: on seeing that a careful presentation of the facts can augment the questions that sit behind them. If the Holocaust is both understandable and incomprehensible, if it is factually accountable and yet humanly difficult to fathom, what sort of exploration is required to contain the need to know while resisting the sensational? When Levi discusses the juggler, he does determined to play fair to the givens of the situation instead of turning it into a story of pity and abuse. Levi does not at all say this is either beyond your ken so we cannot speak about it, nor does he say that we must speak about in the most blatant terms to fish out all the necessary culprits. Equally, he does not want to forgive the Nazis; he wants very much to judge them, but judge them on terms that can acknowledge the complexity of human feeling over the need to simplify existence. If no group more readily than the Nazis play in the popular imagination as baddies, Levi wouldn't want to remove the acknowledgement of horrendous wrong-doing; he would just prefer to contextualize it within the most useful of parameters. As he says in the story of Dr Muller, while he can forgive an enemy who is no longer and enemy who will confront their wrongdoing, “the enemy who remains an enemy who perseveres in his desire to inflict suffering, it is certain that one must not forgive him: one can try to salvage him, one can (and must!) discuss with him, but it is our duty to judge him, not to forgive him.” (The Periodic Table) Life is complicated Levi says, and the circumstances of his life gave him the opportunity to understand that complexity without suggesting that such intricacies are chiefly literary. When he says “if a writer is honest, if he is convinced that he has something to say, then it is very difficult for him to be a bad writer,”(Paris Review) this is Levi insisting it isn't literary style that produces complexity, but complexity that demands a style that is equal to it. We often find in Levis work a writer of narrative simplicity accompanying an ethical challenge, evident for example in the passages about the juggler. The story comes out of explaining the intricacies of behaviour to those who would otherwise find them comprehensible. It is consistent with what Levi says in 'On Obscure Writing': “I would like to add that in my opinion, one should not write in an obscure manner, because a piece of writing has all the more value and all the more hope of diffusion and permanence, the better it is understood and the less it lends itself to equivocal interpretations.” Levi goes on to qualify this statement in various ways, including in the passages on Trakl and Celan quoted above, but they are the sub-categories of the literary that shares similarities with the sub-categories of the moral. In other words, all things being equal, this is the best way to write, just as all things being equal the best way to treat people is kindly and well. For various reasons, writing cannot always be so straightforward, just as in certain situations morality cannot be so simple either. What we frequently find in Levi is a writer who is uncomplicated in his prose style but subtle in his analysis of behaviour, including his own.

This comes through well in a number of the pieces in Moments of Reprieve, including of course 'The Juggler', but also 'A Disciple' and 'Lorenzo's Return'. In 'A Disciple', the narrator describes a man with a rare capacity for happiness, a Hungarian who went by the name of Bandi. The narrator tries to explain to this newcomer that his pleasant nature would have to take into account the unpleasant nature of the camps, which was not “for polite and quiet people.” Bandi “would need to get busy, organize illegal food, dodge work, find influential friends, hide one's thoughts, steal and lie.” Many of the usual virtues would have little place in the camps; the sooner Bandi knew about this, the sooner he could let go of his kindness and honesty, the better it would be for him. There will be many in our so-called normal world who might also insist that honesty is not the best policy, that keeping your thoughts to yourself and lording it over others is a useful way to be no matter the circumstances, but find great literature and art that promotes such a view, except in the most provocative terms, a la Sade. Levi's literature is saying that it is the decent thing given a set of circumstances where civilization has failed. When human survival and human decency have parted ways, the human cannot be expected to sustain an ethical system in its specific absence. The story ends with Bandi coming to the narrator. He rummaged  “at length in his pocket, and finally, with loving care, pulled out a radish. He gave it to me, blushing deeply, and said with shy pride. 'I've learned. This is for you. It's the first thing I've stolen.'” Auschwitz doesn't become a place where one is incapable of a value system; it just the means the values are reconfigured according to necessity. Working hard, remaining honest and respecting authority are all without value, but friendship and generosity can still be practised, can even be all the more evident through the paradox of the absence of these other values. Perhaps we can go further and indicate that extreme circumstances like the camps make many values that are seen to be of immense value hardly important at all. Vital to Levi's work isn't the idea that after Auschwitz civilization is without value, but to ask what values can civilization predicate itself upon. Near the beginning of The Periodic Table, speaking of his family forebears. Levi says, “that not all of them were materially inert, for that was not granted them. On the contrary, they were – or had to be – quite active in order to earn a living and because of a reigning morality that held that “he who does not work shall not eat”. Here we sense a writer who may believe in hard work but sees no point in glorifying it. There are values of far more importance: the belief in hard work in certain circumstances would have aided the Nazi project and debilitated one's own body.

However, if Bandi in 'A Disciple' cannily learns to play the game without playing his friend, Lorenzo in 'Lorenzo's Return' seems always to be seeking a higher value out of such low expectations. Lorenzo was a civilian worker at the camp, one of many Italians compelled for various reasons to work in Germany during the war. Levi describes him as someone who rarely talked, had worked as a mason in a village, never married, and regarded his freedom as an absolute right. If an employer had an issue with his work, off he went, passing through borders without a passport, usually by foot – frequently working in the South of France. Levi got to know him in Auschwitz and benefited from the man's help. “In the violent and degraded environment of Auschwitz, a man helping other men out of pure altruism was incomprehensible, alien, like a savior who's come from heaven.” Levi thought that he had helped only him, but found out afterwards that Lorenzo had helped others too. Levi went to see him after the war and “found a tired man, not tired from the walk [back from the camps], mortally tired, a weariness without remedy.” He had given up working as a mason, had taken to drink and lived like a nomad, “sleeping wherever he happened to be.” He had seen the world, but he didn't care for it: “life no longer interested him.” Levi helped him as much as he could, seeing in Lorenzo a hero, whatever heroism could mean in such circumstances. But this was not what his family saw. Carole Angier, in her Levi biography, suggests the family were embarrassed by Lorenzo. They could not understand the nature of his deeds and saw chiefly a man who was an alcoholic. The hero was Levi, who helped them out financially. It wasn't until 1999, many years after Lorenzo's death and a few years after Levi's, that “his name was finally entered in the honour roll of the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, all his brothers and sisters had died except the youngest.” (The Double Bond) They didn't know just heroic Lorenzo had been.

Lorenzo's family could not see the greater value but instead the lesser one. The greater one consisted of saving lives in circumstances where offering help came with enormous personal risk. The lesser one rested on saving face, making a go of your life and not embarrassing your family. The point of Levi's writings is frequently to point out what a greater value happens to be; it is only out of such an examination the Holocaust can be put into a perspective that will avoid the sort of despair Levi sees in the work of Celan. This isn't to say Levi criticizes this major poet; more that he sees Celan achieving a poetic brilliance but at the cost of hope. What Celan represents is the flipside extreme of an artistic aesthetic that indicates there is nothing that matters except the work itself, the artistic object, a position exemplified perhaps by Oscar Wilde when he said: “A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course, man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental, It is a misuse. All this is very obscure. But the subject is a long one.” (The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde) Wilde acknowledges that the subject is a long one, and now, well over a hundred years later, it is an even longer one still. To do justice to it would be to take in Kant, Hegel, and, yes, Heidegger. If Kant, for example, believed that vital to art was its disinterestedness, our capacity to view beauty without feeling we must act upon it, then Heidegger saw art as capable of revealing our being to ourselves. Kant noted that while disinterest means that we can offer an aesthetic opinion about something, the agreeable works differently. “This is why we say of the agreeable not merely that we like it but that it gratifies us.” (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism) Wilde wouldn't be inclined to disagree with this claim. Heidegger, however, notes: “thus in the work it is truth, not merely something true, that is at work. The picture that shows the peasant shoes, the poem that says the Roman fountain, do not simply make manifest what these isolated being as such are if indeed they manifest anything at all, rather they make unconcealment as such happen in regard to beings as a whole.” ('Origin of the Work of Art') If Kant sees art as removed from life, Heidegger sees it as the core of being. Kant's disinterest allows for contemplation, certainly, but Heidegger's indicates that it is where our very unconcealement can take place. For a poet such as Celan, or Trakl, part of the obscurity Levi notes rests on the unconcealment of being he tries to find. Speaking of Trakl, Heidegger says, “the spirit which bears the gift of the 'great soul' is pain; pain is the animator. And the soul so gifted is the giver of life. This is why everything that is alive is in the sense in which the soul is alive, is imbued with pain, the fundamental trait of the soul's nature. Everything that is alive is painful.” (On The Way to Language) Levi would acknowledge pain but would be wary of seeing nobility in it. The point is to find out of the worst the most affirmative possibility available. He wouldn't deny of course the atrocities of the camps, but neither would he wish to turn Auschwitz into a metaphysical claim any greater than numerous others. It says something very fundamental about our being, but Levi would not like Heidegger claim that “everything that is alive, is painful.” He would more pragmatically suggest, in his preface to If This Is A Man, that the book “should be able, rather, to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind. Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that 'every stranger is an enemy'. But “for the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason.” Thus, “the story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal.” The camps are a warning, not a given. Speaking of 'Translating Kafka,” Levi says, “now, I love and admire Kafka, because he writes in a way that is totally unavailable to me. In my writing, for good or evil, knowingly or not, I've always strived to pass from the darkness into the light...Kafka forges his path in the opposite direction...” Levi seeks from situations a recuperative optimism; Kafka, Trakl and Celan closer to an unconcealing pessimism. All three however very much escape art for art's sake, but the Heideggarian sees art's capacity for disinterest revealing the question of being; Levi's the desire to live, to seek the light of life that the camps could easily snuff out spiritually as well as physically, evident when he says of Lorenzo that he had “died of the survivor's disease.”

This question of art versus life is illustrated well in a short story from A Tranquil Star, and we shall say a few words about it before returning to, and concluding on, Moments of Reprieve. In 'The Girl in the Book', an older man is sent by the doctor to the coast after problems with his lungs. There he notices a foreigner who fascinates him and can find very little information about her, try as he might to engage her in conversation, or deliberately try and find ways to run into to her. In time, while reading a book by an English soldier, he reads about a Lithuanian refugee who would appear to resemble the woman he sees in the town. In the book she is an impetuous and wonderful lover and goes by the name of Harmonika: the name he sees on the front door of the older woman with whom he is fascinated. He gets the chance to speak to her and quizzes her about the past. She tells him that she is no longer that woman and perhaps never was. These are events from thirty years earlier, they were also the projections of the person writing the book, and the woman suggests that Umberto is offering projections of his own. She sends him on his way. Levi indicates that this is not finding a higher principle than actual experience, but a book's capacity to generate fantasies in the people who create it and the people who read it. The story doesn't attempt to make the coincidence of Umberto reading a book by chance about a woman he is fascinated by any more plausible than is narratively necessary, but it plays out nicely as a tale about illusions. Literature shouldn't be confused too readily with life, nor should we expect to find in it the essence of life. It is no more than an aspect of it in fictional form.

But then what is Moments of Reprieve, a work that is described on the Penguin back cover as fiction, yet one that many will read as so closely related to fact that they will refuse to distinguish between the two. When Angier writes about Lorenzo in her Levi biography is this not the same Lorenzo Levi writes about in Moments of Reprieve? Yes, from the perspective that there was a man called Lorenzo who helped Levi in the camps, and whom Levi knew afterwards and whose family he then helped in turn. No, if we see that a book can only ever be about characters and never about people. This might seem a troublesome claim if we think of all the biographies that insist they are based on fact, but even these will out of the many details available to the biographer be a work of the biographer's creation: it is Angier's Levi however dense her research. And this is not at all to say there is no difference between fact and fiction (we have seen the scandal that can be aroused by those writing fake Holocaust memoirs). It is more to insist that we can't avoid the fact that life is a three-dimensional activity, a book a one dimensional series of words on the page. These words can produce a tabloid newspaper or a novel like Remembrance of Things Past, but they can never be more than words. This seems like an obvious point to make, but we might believe for Levi it is a necessary and cautionary truth. Throughout Moments of Reprieve he wants to tell us what he has produced is a book not because he is interested in metafictional devices that draw attention to the form, but because he knows fundamentally the difference between memories on the page and actions in the camps. It is there in the comments in the 'Juggler' about the difficulty of describing a slap in Camp terms. It is there again, for example, in 'Last Christmas of the War' when a package of food arrives. “The package contained ersatz chocolate cookies and powdered milk, but to describe its real value, the impact it had on me and my friend, Alberto, is beyond the powers of ordinary language.” Extraordinary language might not help either, because that package was not in the realm of words but in a hunger that has little to do with poetry. Yet out of these experiences, words must be found, and we should remember Levi's remark that if a writer has something to say they cannot be a bad writer. That is a very big claim and may often be countered, but someone who feels the gap between words and deeds, partly due to the difficulty in describing the word in the context of the deed, will be wary of seeing writing as an activity for its own sake. For whose sake is it for, might be a fair question, but the ones who usually offer the best response are those for whom it is not an easy question to answer.

 

 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Moments of Reprieve

Articulating the Comprehensible

What is the ethical centre of a writer's work, the aspect of the material that it would seem to work from and find refuge in or escape out of? In Proust it would seem to reside in his mother; in Kafka his father, in Joyce his wife. But sometimes we may wish to locate it in an event: for Orwell it may have been living on the streets of London and Paris; for Hemingway ambulance driving in WWI, for Beckett his involvement in the resistance. Yet these claims, while hardly false, seem at the same time tenuous. Would we say the same if we were to claim that for Primo Levi it was Auschwitz? There have been other writers who went through the camps and wrote out of them (from Paul Celan to Tadeusz Borowski, Imre Kertesz to Eli Weisel) but maybe no writer would seem to be more associated with the Holocaust than Levi, someone who could say: "the story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal." This comes in the author's preface to If This is a Man, the writer's first book understanding aspects of the camps, and where he also says, "many people - many nations - can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that 'every stranger is an enemy'. For the most part, this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only as random, disconnected acts." But", he says, "when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager."

But Levi was also a chemist, someone who luckily matriculated before harsher Italian laws made it impossible for Jews to take a degree. It was a profession he would practice for many years and would become almost as central to his writing as the Holocaust. Indeed, the profession allowed him to write. As he says in a letter 'To a Young Reader': "In Italy, today, every trade coincides with a guarantee: he who lives on writing has no guarantees. As a consequence, pure storytellers, those who gain their living from their creativity alone, are very few." (Other People's Trades) Levi was one of those many writers who could not, or wished not do so, aware perhaps that to be one of those writers might have meant compromises he wasn't willing to make. Or, maybe. he didn't feel he had the flexibility to turn his hand to any type of prose even if he always believed a writer's priority was to make himself clear. "It's up to the writer to make himself understood by those who wish to understand him: it is his trade, writing is a public service and the willing reader must not be disappointed." (Other People's Trades)

There are plenty of writers who might not disagree with Levi but wouldn't be quite so insistent that comprehensibility is the most important aspect of the writer's work. Levi mentions both Celan and Georg Trakl, saying, "it is not by chance that the two least decipherable German poets, Trakl and Celan, both died as suicides, separated by two generations. Their common destiny makes one think about the obscurity of their poetry as a pre-killing, a not-wanting-to-be, a flight from the world of which the intentional death was the crown." (Other People's Trades) These are strong words from a writer who offers them nevertheless within admiration: these poets "must be respected" he says. But Levi would never have wished to risk this type of obscurity, as though the ethical centre was not only the camps (Celan as we've noted had been there too) but also the chemistry. The need to attend to hard science and hard facts unites Levi's work, but also the need to attend to the moral incomprehensibility of the Holocaust, alongside the general difficulties of chemistry for the layman. The most obvious product of this combination was The Periodic Table, a book that draws together storytelling with chemical formulas, the Holocaust with Levi's family and personal history. At the end of the book, he talks about the properties of carbon, discussing how the absorption of milk works in our body. "It is swallowed; and since every living structure harbours a savage distrust towards every contribution of any material of living origins, the chain is meticulously broken apart and the fragments, one by one, are accepted or rejected." It then enters the intestinal threshold and supplants the carbon into the nerve cell. Entering the brain it will allow Levi to write the sentences he is putting down on paper, as if making clear that this is a luxury he has not forgotten, well aware that during his time in the camps hunger was an ongoing concern. Writing is difficult in the best of times; in the worst of them almost impossible, but perhaps all the more necessary. This is where clarity is important, and we find the ethics of his prose.

To understand this more clearly let us pay special attention to Moments of Reprieve (while also acknowledging other examples of Levi's writing) What is it: a novella, a collection of short stories, a memoir, or maybe all of these things at once? All the episodes concern the Holocaust and its survival. While If This is a Man was written by a young writer just out of the camps, Moments of Reprieve was written in 1981 six years before Levi's death. If the first book is a survivor's account (also known as Survival in Auschwitz), Moments of Reprieve is a recollection in the relative tranquillity of the intervening 34 years. In this sense, it is perhaps closer to The Periodic Table, written in 1975, than to If This Is A Man. They are both works that carry with them an air of contextualizing wisdom and knowledge. As Levi says in Moments of Reprieve, the passage of time could give to his work a broader context by virtue of the material already written. Levi, speaking of one fellow chemist, Mertens, a German Catholic, someone who had worked in the same Auschwitz factory, but unlike Levi was inside the barbed wire and he outside", notes "I learned that Mertens had read my books about the Camp and, in all likelihood, others as well, because he was neither cynical nor insensitive. He tended to block out certain segment of his past, but was intelligent enough to keep from lying to himself." Interviewed in another book about the Camps, a historical account, Mertens is asked by Hermann Langbein why he went to work in Auschwitz. Mertens replies that he thought it would have been better than a Nazi going; that while he never talked to the prisoners, he did try to improve their working conditions and that he knew nothing of the gas chambers. When Langbein suggests that Mertens obedience was helping Hitler's cause, he doesn't deny it. He just says that today he understands that, but not at the time. Levi says he never tried to meet Mertens. "I felt a complex reluctance", but Levi did write to him, saying that Hitler's rise to power wasn't despite the likes of Mertens but because of him: they were good people turning blind eyes, trying to do no harm but with their eyes closed to actions that didn't demand acquiescence but resistance. Levi never received a reply and Mertens died a few years later. Levi doesn't say what he died of but the story ends here, perhaps indicating that guilt got the better of him, perhaps not. Levi wouldn't be offering this as revenge, however, showing someone getting their just desserts for an all too sweet life. No, more that the Holocaust took so many people in so many ways: that what matters to Levi isn't revenge in various manifestations, but manifold realization. This would be the awareness of magnitude over the pleasure of the vengeful. To understand vengeance one would first need to understand the logic of the camps, the nature of the human, and the complexity of memory,

Concerning the first, Levi writes about a beautiful young man he met in Auschwitz whom he calls the juggler, someone who could turn almost any activity into a moment of ingenuity and skill. He would do this not to entertain others but to please himself, and Levi liked this man's insouciance that contained within it the need to survive. One day the juggler sees him scribbling away on a piece of paper in an underground storeroom, when the juggler, Eddy, comes in quietly and catches him off guard, clobbering the young writer with a slap. As Levi writes about it in the book he catches himself, saying that by using the word slap he was somehow lying, "or at least transmitting biased emotions and information to the reader." ('The Juggler') "Eddy was not a brute; he did not mean to punish me or make me suffer. A slap inflicted in the Camp had a very different significance from what it might have here among us in today's here and now" It was, the narrator says, just another way of expressing oneself: Eddy's big fear was that Levi's scribbling could get others into trouble. The point of the slap was to tell someone they had no right to do that. "A slap like Eddy's was akin to a friendly smack you give a dog, or the whack you administer to a donkey to convey or reinforce an order or prohibition."

So often what Levi wants to do in his work is rescue human nature from the logic of the camps, to say that we cannot apply the usual rules of human nature in circumstances so extreme, but we shouldn't leave behind the relative human decency one would nevertheless find in such an atrociously hostile environment. Trying to send a letter at that time in the camps was against Camp rules; if Levi had been found out he would have gone to the gallows. He insisted he was writing just to puts words on the page and thus Eddy goes to various lengths to determine whether the narrator is telling the truth. He finds that the narrator is, and sees this scribbler as a madman but not dangerous to him. It is Holocaust decency in action. No great deed has been done, the narrator has received an attack, but he escapes a hanging, and Eddy passes for a very decent man.

This can sometimes contain for Levi a moral paradox. In Paris Review he would say, "I was happy when Eichmann was captured and brought before a tribunal and executed - even though I am against the death penalty." Discussing the foreward he wrote for a book by Rudolf Hess he said that while generally one writes a preface to a book that one loves, he wrote one for a book that he hated. But it was nevertheless an important book and Levi thought it should be brought to the attention of readers. Anyone who sees a contradiction in Levi's position would be unlikely to understand the paradox that insists the human can be appallingly cruel and wonderfully kind, that he/she can be without anger and insist on the harshest of punishments. As Levi says of his own temperament. "It is a matter of hormones. In situations where I should get angry...I was never able to....It's a habit of having my second reactions before the first." (Paris Review) Levi is dispositionally incapable of the sort of anger numerous others are very dispositionally likely to access. If one human can access it and another can't, then the notion of humanity becomes pretty broad indeed. Any clear claim to understand it would need to understand that range. A paradox is often no more than a nuance initially missed. Thus he can want Eichmann dead without seeking revenge; he can insist on the death penalty whilst against it.

If disposition asks us to call into question the categorically human, memory asks for more subtlety still. In The Periodic Table, the narrator discusses working in an Italian factory and ordering resin for varnishing from a German firm. There was a problem with the resin, Levi writes a letter explaining what the problem happens to be, and in time receives a couple of replies, with the latter containing an important typo. The name of the person sending the letter happens to be a Dr Muller, with Levi noting that there was a Dr Muller who worked in Auschwitz, but then there are a hundred of thousands of Dr Mullers in Germany. It is as common a name as Miller in English or Molinari in Italian. But in a moment worthy of a thriller, the narrator notes too that the word naphthenate is misspelt. And not just once but twice. Who used to misspell the word but the Dr Muller who worked in the camps. Levi gets in contact with the German company's representatives, whom he knows quite well, and asks for further details about Dr Muller, finding out his age, what he looks like and his address. Levi sends him a German copy of If This Is A Man, and asks him in the accompanying letter if he is the Muller of Auschwitz. He also wonders if Muller remembers the three men who would work with him in the laboratory, of which he happened to be one, as well as the "customer worried about the resin that did not dry."

Levi awaits a reply, and waits, and waits. Eventually, a reply arrives, with Muller admitting he is the Muller of Auschwitz and hopes at some stage for a meeting: "useful both to myself and to you, and necessary for the purpose of overcoming that terrible past." Now Levi has to reply, but what to say; what exactly are Muller's motives. Levi suspects, understandably, that Muller seeks absolution, but why should Levi put himself through this encounter? Muller "had a past to overcome and I didn't; I wanted from him only a discount on the bill for the defective resin." What was he to ask, and in what language? Writing at length in German his prose would be full of mistakes, and he had so many questions to ask, from Muller's willingness to work in Auschwitz, to putting children in gas chambers. But reply he does, and in time they speak on the phone and arrange a meeting in Italy. "Eight days later I received from Mrs Muller the announcement of the unexpected death of Doctor Lothar Muller in his sixtieth year of life." The tale ends there, but in Paris Review, Levi says while he suspected his death was natural he wanted in the story to leave it ambiguous. "I purposely left it undecided...to leave the reader in doubt, as I was." We might assume guilt got the better of him, that it destroyed him from the inside, ruined his health and took his life. Memory, like the Lord, moves in mysterious ways and moves mysteriously in each individual. If dispositions can be distinct in the present tense, they are no less so when dealing with the past tense too. Was Muller shaken into vague but unequivocal culpability by Levi's contact, or was he an ailing man with a sense of shame looking for Levi's forgiveness?

The way Levi tells the story of Dr Muller in The Periodic Table is quite different from the way he tells it in Paris Review, with Levi making clear that his work is shaped. He gives it the meaning it requires for the impact he seeks. This isn't the same as making things up, which leads to scandal, lawsuits and loss of respect as Adam Kirsch explores in a New Republic essay, 'Yet Another Writer Has Admitted Faking Her Holocaust Memoir'. It is about shaping the facts in a manner that brings out their complexity. This is based more on omission rather than admission: on seeing that a careful presentation of the facts can augment the questions that sit behind them. If the Holocaust is both understandable and incomprehensible, if it is factually accountable and yet humanly difficult to fathom, what sort of exploration is required to contain the need to know while resisting the sensational? When Levi discusses the juggler, he does determined to play fair to the givens of the situation instead of turning it into a story of pity and abuse. Levi does not at all say this is either beyond your ken so we cannot speak about it, nor does he say that we must speak about in the most blatant terms to fish out all the necessary culprits. Equally, he does not want to forgive the Nazis; he wants very much to judge them, but judge them on terms that can acknowledge the complexity of human feeling over the need to simplify existence. If no group more readily than the Nazis play in the popular imagination as baddies, Levi wouldn't want to remove the acknowledgement of horrendous wrong-doing; he would just prefer to contextualize it within the most useful of parameters. As he says in the story of Dr Muller, while he can forgive an enemy who is no longer and enemy who will confront their wrongdoing, "the enemy who remains an enemy who perseveres in his desire to inflict suffering, it is certain that one must not forgive him: one can try to salvage him, one can (and must!) discuss with him, but it is our duty to judge him, not to forgive him." (The Periodic Table) Life is complicated Levi says, and the circumstances of his life gave him the opportunity to understand that complexity without suggesting that such intricacies are chiefly literary. When he says "if a writer is honest, if he is convinced that he has something to say, then it is very difficult for him to be a bad writer,"(Paris Review) this is Levi insisting it isn't literary style that produces complexity, but complexity that demands a style that is equal to it. We often find in Levis work a writer of narrative simplicity accompanying an ethical challenge, evident for example in the passages about the juggler. The story comes out of explaining the intricacies of behaviour to those who would otherwise find them comprehensible. It is consistent with what Levi says in 'On Obscure Writing': "I would like to add that in my opinion, one should not write in an obscure manner, because a piece of writing has all the more value and all the more hope of diffusion and permanence, the better it is understood and the less it lends itself to equivocal interpretations." Levi goes on to qualify this statement in various ways, including in the passages on Trakl and Celan quoted above, but they are the sub-categories of the literary that shares similarities with the sub-categories of the moral. In other words, all things being equal, this is the best way to write, just as all things being equal the best way to treat people is kindly and well. For various reasons, writing cannot always be so straightforward, just as in certain situations morality cannot be so simple either. What we frequently find in Levi is a writer who is uncomplicated in his prose style but subtle in his analysis of behaviour, including his own.

This comes through well in a number of the pieces in Moments of Reprieve, including of course 'The Juggler', but also 'A Disciple' and 'Lorenzo's Return'. In 'A Disciple', the narrator describes a man with a rare capacity for happiness, a Hungarian who went by the name of Bandi. The narrator tries to explain to this newcomer that his pleasant nature would have to take into account the unpleasant nature of the camps, which was not "for polite and quiet people." Bandi "would need to get busy, organize illegal food, dodge work, find influential friends, hide one's thoughts, steal and lie." Many of the usual virtues would have little place in the camps; the sooner Bandi knew about this, the sooner he could let go of his kindness and honesty, the better it would be for him. There will be many in our so-called normal world who might also insist that honesty is not the best policy, that keeping your thoughts to yourself and lording it over others is a useful way to be no matter the circumstances, but find great literature and art that promotes such a view, except in the most provocative terms, a la Sade. Levi's literature is saying that it is the decent thing given a set of circumstances where civilization has failed. When human survival and human decency have parted ways, the human cannot be expected to sustain an ethical system in its specific absence. The story ends with Bandi coming to the narrator. He rummaged "at length in his pocket, and finally, with loving care, pulled out a radish. He gave it to me, blushing deeply, and said with shy pride. 'I've learned. This is for you. It's the first thing I've stolen.'" Auschwitz doesn't become a place where one is incapable of a value system; it just the means the values are reconfigured according to necessity. Working hard, remaining honest and respecting authority are all without value, but friendship and generosity can still be practised, can even be all the more evident through the paradox of the absence of these other values. Perhaps we can go further and indicate that extreme circumstances like the camps make many values that are seen to be of immense value hardly important at all. Vital to Levi's work isn't the idea that after Auschwitz civilization is without value, but to ask what values can civilization predicate itself upon. Near the beginning of The Periodic Table, speaking of his family forebears. Levi says, "that not all of them were materially inert, for that was not granted them. On the contrary, they were - or had to be - quite active in order to earn a living and because of a reigning morality that held that "he who does not work shall not eat". Here we sense a writer who may believe in hard work but sees no point in glorifying it. There are values of far more importance: the belief in hard work in certain circumstances would have aided the Nazi project and debilitated one's own body.

However, if Bandi in 'A Disciple' cannily learns to play the game without playing his friend, Lorenzo in 'Lorenzo's Return' seems always to be seeking a higher value out of such low expectations. Lorenzo was a civilian worker at the camp, one of many Italians compelled for various reasons to work in Germany during the war. Levi describes him as someone who rarely talked, had worked as a mason in a village, never married, and regarded his freedom as an absolute right. If an employer had an issue with his work, off he went, passing through borders without a passport, usually by foot - frequently working in the South of France. Levi got to know him in Auschwitz and benefited from the man's help. "In the violent and degraded environment of Auschwitz, a man helping other men out of pure altruism was incomprehensible, alien, like a savior who's come from heaven." Levi thought that he had helped only him, but found out afterwards that Lorenzo had helped others too. Levi went to see him after the war and "found a tired man, not tired from the walk [back from the camps], mortally tired, a weariness without remedy." He had given up working as a mason, had taken to drink and lived like a nomad, "sleeping wherever he happened to be." He had seen the world, but he didn't care for it: "life no longer interested him." Levi helped him as much as he could, seeing in Lorenzo a hero, whatever heroism could mean in such circumstances. But this was not what his family saw. Carole Angier, in her Levi biography, suggests the family were embarrassed by Lorenzo. They could not understand the nature of his deeds and saw chiefly a man who was an alcoholic. The hero was Levi, who helped them out financially. It wasn't until 1999, many years after Lorenzo's death and a few years after Levi's, that "his name was finally entered in the honour roll of the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, all his brothers and sisters had died except the youngest." (The Double Bond) They didn't know just heroic Lorenzo had been.

Lorenzo's family could not see the greater value but instead the lesser one. The greater one consisted of saving lives in circumstances where offering help came with enormous personal risk. The lesser one rested on saving face, making a go of your life and not embarrassing your family. The point of Levi's writings is frequently to point out what a greater value happens to be; it is only out of such an examination the Holocaust can be put into a perspective that will avoid the sort of despair Levi sees in the work of Celan. This isn't to say Levi criticizes this major poet; more that he sees Celan achieving a poetic brilliance but at the cost of hope. What Celan represents is the flipside extreme of an artistic aesthetic that indicates there is nothing that matters except the work itself, the artistic object, a position exemplified perhaps by Oscar Wilde when he said: "A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course, man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental, It is a misuse. All this is very obscure. But the subject is a long one." (The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde) Wilde acknowledges that the subject is a long one, and now, well over a hundred years later, it is an even longer one still. To do justice to it would be to take in Kant, Hegel, and, yes, Heidegger. If Kant, for example, believed that vital to art was its disinterestedness, our capacity to view beauty without feeling we must act upon it, then Heidegger saw art as capable of revealing our being to ourselves. Kant noted that while disinterest means that we can offer an aesthetic opinion about something, the agreeable works differently. "This is why we say of the agreeable not merely that we like it but that it gratifies us." (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism) Wilde wouldn't be inclined to disagree with this claim. Heidegger, however, notes: "thus in the work it is truth, not merely something true, that is at work. The picture that shows the peasant shoes, the poem that says the Roman fountain, do not simply make manifest what these isolated being as such are if indeed they manifest anything at all, rather they make unconcealment as such happen in regard to beings as a whole." ('Origin of the Work of Art') If Kant sees art as removed from life, Heidegger sees it as the core of being. Kant's disinterest allows for contemplation, certainly, but Heidegger's indicates that it is where our very unconcealement can take place. For a poet such as Celan, or Trakl, part of the obscurity Levi notes rests on the unconcealment of being he tries to find. Speaking of Trakl, Heidegger says, "the spirit which bears the gift of the 'great soul' is pain; pain is the animator. And the soul so gifted is the giver of life. This is why everything that is alive is in the sense in which the soul is alive, is imbued with pain, the fundamental trait of the soul's nature. Everything that is alive is painful." (On The Way to Language) Levi would acknowledge pain but would be wary of seeing nobility in it. The point is to find out of the worst the most affirmative possibility available. He wouldn't deny of course the atrocities of the camps, but neither would he wish to turn Auschwitz into a metaphysical claim any greater than numerous others. It says something very fundamental about our being, but Levi would not like Heidegger claim that "everything that is alive, is painful." He would more pragmatically suggest, in his preface to If This Is A Man, that the book "should be able, rather, to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind. Many people - many nations - can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that 'every stranger is an enemy'. But "for the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason." Thus, "the story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal." The camps are a warning, not a given. Speaking of 'Translating Kafka," Levi says, "now, I love and admire Kafka, because he writes in a way that is totally unavailable to me. In my writing, for good or evil, knowingly or not, I've always strived to pass from the darkness into the light...Kafka forges his path in the opposite direction..." Levi seeks from situations a recuperative optimism; Kafka, Trakl and Celan closer to an unconcealing pessimism. All three however very much escape art for art's sake, but the Heideggarian sees art's capacity for disinterest revealing the question of being; Levi's the desire to live, to seek the light of life that the camps could easily snuff out spiritually as well as physically, evident when he says of Lorenzo that he had "died of the survivor's disease."

This question of art versus life is illustrated well in a short story from A Tranquil Star, and we shall say a few words about it before returning to, and concluding on, Moments of Reprieve. In 'The Girl in the Book', an older man is sent by the doctor to the coast after problems with his lungs. There he notices a foreigner who fascinates him and can find very little information about her, try as he might to engage her in conversation, or deliberately try and find ways to run into to her. In time, while reading a book by an English soldier, he reads about a Lithuanian refugee who would appear to resemble the woman he sees in the town. In the book she is an impetuous and wonderful lover and goes by the name of Harmonika: the name he sees on the front door of the older woman with whom he is fascinated. He gets the chance to speak to her and quizzes her about the past. She tells him that she is no longer that woman and perhaps never was. These are events from thirty years earlier, they were also the projections of the person writing the book, and the woman suggests that Umberto is offering projections of his own. She sends him on his way. Levi indicates that this is not finding a higher principle than actual experience, but a book's capacity to generate fantasies in the people who create it and the people who read it. The story doesn't attempt to make the coincidence of Umberto reading a book by chance about a woman he is fascinated by any more plausible than is narratively necessary, but it plays out nicely as a tale about illusions. Literature shouldn't be confused too readily with life, nor should we expect to find in it the essence of life. It is no more than an aspect of it in fictional form.

But then what is Moments of Reprieve, a work that is described on the Penguin back cover as fiction, yet one that many will read as so closely related to fact that they will refuse to distinguish between the two. When Angier writes about Lorenzo in her Levi biography is this not the same Lorenzo Levi writes about in Moments of Reprieve? Yes, from the perspective that there was a man called Lorenzo who helped Levi in the camps, and whom Levi knew afterwards and whose family he then helped in turn. No, if we see that a book can only ever be about characters and never about people. This might seem a troublesome claim if we think of all the biographies that insist they are based on fact, but even these will out of the many details available to the biographer be a work of the biographer's creation: it is Angier's Levi however dense her research. And this is not at all to say there is no difference between fact and fiction (we have seen the scandal that can be aroused by those writing fake Holocaust memoirs). It is more to insist that we can't avoid the fact that life is a three-dimensional activity, a book a one dimensional series of words on the page. These words can produce a tabloid newspaper or a novel like Remembrance of Things Past, but they can never be more than words. This seems like an obvious point to make, but we might believe for Levi it is a necessary and cautionary truth. Throughout Moments of Reprieve he wants to tell us what he has produced is a book not because he is interested in metafictional devices that draw attention to the form, but because he knows fundamentally the difference between memories on the page and actions in the camps. It is there in the comments in the 'Juggler' about the difficulty of describing a slap in Camp terms. It is there again, for example, in 'Last Christmas of the War' when a package of food arrives. "The package contained ersatz chocolate cookies and powdered milk, but to describe its real value, the impact it had on me and my friend, Alberto, is beyond the powers of ordinary language." Extraordinary language might not help either, because that package was not in the realm of words but in a hunger that has little to do with poetry. Yet out of these experiences, words must be found, and we should remember Levi's remark that if a writer has something to say they cannot be a bad writer. That is a very big claim and may often be countered, but someone who feels the gap between words and deeds, partly due to the difficulty in describing the word in the context of the deed, will be wary of seeing writing as an activity for its own sake. For whose sake is it for, might be a fair question, but the ones who usually offer the best response are those for whom it is not an easy question to answer.


© Tony McKibbin